In the summer of 2013 my sister Jan and her husband walked for a week in France along the ancient pilgrimage trail called the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. The city of Santiago, in western Spain, was built in Medieval times around a cathedral where a relic of St. James, the patron of knights, laborers and pilgrims is said to have been buried. On the coast, a few miles further, Finisterre was believed to be the westernmost point of Europe, and there sins could be cast into the sea and washed away. Some historians say these pilgrimages to the sea began long before the Christian era, but in Medieval times pilgrims began to walk to Santiago and Finisterra from as far away as Russia, merging like rivulets along the way to form a river of millions, protected from bandits and raiders by international honor for pilgrims, and served by hostels and ale houses established all along the way. Jan was on this pilgrim way when I told the family that the doctors had found Mark’s aggressive cancer. She and her party lit candles in cathedrals, and placed stones on wayside cairns for him.
When I heard their story I knew that’s what I needed to do at the end of my first year without Mark—a pilgrimage. To delineate these two parts of my life. To leave the difficult months behind and start to focus on the future. I wondered, what friend would be free to go with me? Or could I do it alone? And just as I had that thought, I came to the suggestion in the guide book, “If you are undertaking this pilgrimage for spiritual reasons, consider going alone.” That’s when I got excited. I imagined studying French and Spanish while I grieved (why not?) and walking in Europe as a pilgrim, heading west to cast my sorrows into the sea and start fresh.
The language study never happened. This year I couldn’t even concentrate to read. But walking, getting out of my head, getting my body into the physical world did happen. It happened a lot, so the idea of a walking pilgrimage as a rite of passage stayed with me.
One problem: Mark died in October, and October wasn’t going to be a good time to be outside anywhere in the temperate zone. As I thought more about rites of passage, I realized they have a wide target area. Among the Nuers of South Sudan and the Oromos of Ethiopia, men pass from boyhood to adulthood—from youth to wisdom—in age groups. Among the Nuers, any given boy may be on the older or younger side of his age group when the Men of the Spear decide the timing is right for their ordeal ceremony—when the weather is warm, when the cows are giving milk to nourish the boys, when the odds are good for successful healing from the bone-deep lines he will cut across their foreheads.
We make a parallel set of calculations—when we’re ready to marry we choose a weekend when our mother-in-law can come from New York, when our brides maid or best man is available, when the venue of our dreams is free. Whether we’re completely ready to enter the adult world or not, we graduate in late May with the rest of our college classmates. There is a randomness about the exact date of a rite of passage, and still it works. Surely September for my rite of passage would work.
In June I was delayed from moving into my new house in Portland. At the end of a year of pain and chaos, living in my grown children’s homes and families, not having either of my own—could I bear to live out of a carry-on roller-bag and sleep on my sister’s futon for eleven more days? Beth Rasmussen, my daughter-in-law, suggested I fill the time by doing things I have never done before . . . such as go to the nude beach on Sauvie Island. Yikes! I told her the time for that had passed a few decades ago!
Trying to come up with a plan of my own, of course I thought of walking. I thought of the coast. And I discovered that there’s an Oregon Coast Trail (the OCT), an official hiking pathway, walking the beaches for about half of the 400 miles, scaling the headlands that break through our beaches, and (around certain rocky bays,) walking the shoulder of Highway 101, the artery that connects the West Coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska.
And September on the Oregon coast is one of its best months.
The woman who introduced me to the Oregon Coast Trail is a blogger, Bonnie Henderson, who hiked from Astoria to the California border on the OCT in 2009, averaging seventeen miles a day. If she could do it, I could do it, I thought. I’m in good shape. I had walked my first ten mile hike when I visited Mark’s parents in Kentucky in May. I had found a trail that reclaimed the old railway bed through the Cumberland Gap, a trail first pounded out across the gap in the Cumberland Mountains by Eastern Forest Bison, then followed by Native American hunters as what was called the Warriors’ Path. In a classic example of US land being wrested from the native residents, attacks on settlers were militarily put down and a wealthy land speculator paid Daniel Boone to hack a rough road through to the Kentucky River. In the next decade 300,000 settlers poured through the gap from Virginia and Tennessee to Kentucky. I had followed up that long hike with others in Bend, Oregon following the irrigation canal, and in parks in the foothills of the Cascades.
In June, while I waited for my new house to be ready, I packed a book and one change of clothes and took the bus to the coast. I walked about fifty miles, from Cannon Beach to Oceanside, west of the town of Tillamook, where the most popular Oregon cheese and ice cream are made.
That walk sealed the plan. In September I would make my rite of passage on the Oregon coast, a journey from Astoria to the California border, from grieving to putting together a rich new life.
I trained by looking up urban trails in Portland and walking early in the morning, before the summer days got too hot. I borrowed a pack. I went with my sister Jan on an overnight hike on Mount Hood. I talked with her about trail recipes.
For my final training hike I loaded up my pack in early September, and set out for Kelly Point Park, a thirteen mile round trip walk from my house. Some urban project has given Portlanders cheerfully painted parking barriers at the first fishing spot in Kelly Point Park. I was still feeling fairly fresh and excited when I got there, took a break, snapped some pictures of my new best friend—my niece’s backpack—and ate a power bar.
Does every journey turn at some point into a painful trudge?
By the time I got back to North Portland, I could hardly walk. I staggered slowly along the sidewalks of my own neighborhood, consumed with thoughts of who I could call for a ride. From Chautauqua Boulevard and Lombard, six blocks to my house on to Wall and Depauw streets? Unbelievable. Surely I could make it home. I was only one week from my projected leaving date, I had all my gear collected and packed, and now I knew there was no way I could make the hike as Bonnie Henderson described it. She is one tough cookie.
I studied the map: could I walk 15-25 miles a day without a pack and stay in towns instead? But I had all that gear, and my pack packed so tidily, with everything in its own pocket, and all that intriguing freeze-dried food. So I cut my ambitions down and studied the walk to Florence, Oregon, the halfway town. I spent hours creating my own itinerary of 8-13 mile days that would end me up in either a town or a campground, working with Bonnie Henderson’s blog, the Oregon state’s OCT page, the Oregon.gov Biking-the-Coast web page, lists of state parks and Google Maps.
A week later, when I got to Seaside, Oregon I said to the proprietress of the Seaside Lodge and International Hostel, “I’m thinking of this as a pilgrimage, and I’m finding that everything has turned metaphorical.”
She said, “Life is a pilgrimage, and everything is metaphorical. We just don’t usually notice.”
My first metaphor had begun to echo in my head as I stumbled home from Kelly Point Park: can I do this hard thing? Walking the Oregon coast day after day, my physical world and my emotional world came more and more into congruence–both on a journey, both struggling with a question that was physical and spiritual at the same time: can I do this hard thing?